8 March 2004
South Africa’s aspiring young astronaut, 16-year-old Nomathemba Kontyo, arrived back in South Africa last week after spending two weeks with the National Aeronautical Space Agency (Nasa) in the United States.
Nomathemba Kontyo, from Phillippi in Cape Town, joined 15 other student astronauts from around the world in working with the Mars Exploration Rover mission team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The grade 11 learner at Fezeka High school in Gugulethu was chosen along with seven other girls and eight boys after excelling in an international essay contest run by the Planetary Society, a non-profit organisation with more than 100 000 members from over 140 countries.
The Planetary Society’s “Red Rover Goes to Mars” project is an official part of Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover mission. This is the first time that an international group of children selected through an open competition were able to participate in an active planetary spacecraft mission.
The student astronauts worked with the scientists and engineers overseeing the science payload on Nasa’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers – named “Spirit” and “Opportunity” – robotic geologists that launched from Earth in June and July last year and landed in two different locations on Mars in January.
The students participated in examining pictures from the rovers and attending team meetings with scientists and engineers grappling with choices about what orders to send the rovers.
The students also served as ambassadors to the world at large, communicating over the Internet and through other media about life inside a Mars mission team.
- Read the students’ reports from mission operations
The students rotated through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in teams of two, with each pair spending approximately one week at the facility. Nomathemba, along with Camillia Zedan from the UK, worked with the mission team from February 20 to 29.
In her essay to the Planetary Society, Nomathemba wrote: “I am a female and live in an impoverished community. Being part of the Mars Exploration Rover mission would show that women could achieve anything they put their minds to and show learners from similar environments that through dedication and hard work, everything and anything is possible.
“I would like to prove to all women and especially here in Africa that the time of a woman just being a housewife and cooking for a husband is long time over.
“I would like to promote the importance of Maths and Science as it is subjects that so many in my community do not see the importance and relevance of.”